Demolition row: IIM-Ahmedabad tries to get all on board

After the former director of Indian Institute of Management – Ahmedabad (IIM-A) Errol D’Souza wrote a letter on his last day as the head of the institute in February this year arguing why the iconic red-brick campus needs to be redeveloped, the Board of Governors (BoG) chairman Pankaj Patel on June 4 held a townhall meeting with alumni and other stakeholders over the contentious issue on whether to demolish the buildings designed by renowned architect Louis Kahn in the 1960s.

On whether the iconic red-brick campus needs to be redeveloped(HT File)

The meeting held in hybrid mode (online and in-person) was presided by the BoG chairman Patel and was attended by more than 300-350 people, including alumni, faculty, IIM-A director Bharat Bhasker and a few members of the board.

While D’Souza’s letter drew criticism from experts and a group of alumni, Patel seems to have garnered substantial support from the stakeholders’ meeting that was held on campus.

“I was impressed by the openness and candour displayed during the meeting. The chairman presented a compelling case for infrastructure redevelopment, backed by a detailed presentation from IIT-Roorkee, which acknowledged the complexity of restoration. They discussed the rational and emotional aspects, considering exhaustive restoration efforts and the possibility of a replica,” a 2005 IIM-A post-graduate programme alumnus who attended the event, said.

This meet has the potential to significantly influence the debate surrounding the preservation of architectural heritage, which first began in 2020, when the IIM-A announced plans to demolish 14 out of 18 dormitories due to dampness in walls and leakages in roofs among other issues. The outcry however caused the board to rescind its plans at the time. The matter was revived in 2022, when the IIM-A released a statement in which it said that some buildings in the old campus will undergo reconstruction “in line with the Louis Kahn heritage and keeping in mind the functional needs of current and future residents of the campus.” It also revealed that two groups of experts were tasked with the assessment of the conditions and structural status of the buildings and visited the campus in 2021 to conduct their studies first-hand — one, a group of structural and earthquake engineers from IIT Roorkee and the second, an international group comprising restoration experts, architects, and structural engineers.

Restoration vs demolition

During Sunday’s meeting, a team of experts from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee delivered a presentation outlining the challenges faced in previous restoration attempts at IIM-A’s main campus buildings.

Kahn designed the architectural masterpiece on about 25 hectares of land in Ahmedabad that constitutes the “heritage campus” of IIM-A today. It consists of a total of 18 buildings that were constructed between 1962 and 1974. Some of the notable buildings in the IIM-A campus include the Main Building (also known as the Louis Kahn Plaza), Faculty Block, Dormitories (Dorm 1 to Dorm 18), Library, and the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Management Development Centre (KLMDC).

The experts’ presentation emphasised the porous nature of the bricks, which had high sand content, as well as concerns about substandard brickwork and local brickwork skills.

The scope of the consultancy work assigned to IIT Roorkee included structural assessment of dormitories, the classroom complex and the KLMDC and Annexe area at IIM-A. HT has seen a copy of the presentation.

“The results of our investigations indicate structural soundness and integrity issues in the dormitories and other buildings at numerous locations. While theoretically, restoration and strengthening are possible, the ground realities make it technically inadvisable, impractical, and prohibitively expensive,” stated the IIT-Roorkee presentation.

Prem Chandavarkar, a Bengaluru-based architectural practitioner and theorist, said the highly technical slides of the IIT Roorkee analysis require review by structural engineering experts.

“The distress in structural masonry elements is no doubt a serious concern and interventions necessary to deal with them may necessitate physical alterations that affect the architectural spirit of the original building. However, there is not enough information publicly available to conclude either way. I am told that the final decision taken in the town hall meeting of June 4 between the BoG and alumni is to rebuild the Kahn campus as a faithful recreation of the original. If that is the case, it should follow a proper process in line with best practices undertaken in similar heritage conservation projects where restoration is not a feasible option,” according to Chandavarkar.

A brief history

Renowned American architect Louis Kahn, in collaboration with Indian architects Balkrishna V Doshi and Anant Raje, embarked on the IIM-A campus project in 1962. His visionary design philosophy and the meticulous execution of brick masonry resulted in a masterpiece that came close to completion before Kahn’s untimely demise in 1974. The campus, with its distinctive red-brick façade and harmonious integration with nature, stands as a testament to Kahn’s architectural brilliance and his contribution to India’s design landscape.

However, the deterioration in the structures was noticed and raised at a Building Committee meeting held in 1982. In 2014, IIM-A appointed Mumbai-based firm, Somaya and Kalappa (S&K) Consultants to restore Dorm-15 which was in the most dilapidated state. The work was completed in 2017. Meanwhile, the same firm also restored the Vikram Sarabhai Library at IIM-A in 2018 and received an award of distinction at the UNESCO Asia Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage.

In November 2022, the IIM-A governing council decided that restoration work at the heritage campus will cease altogether. While the Louis Kahn design with brick façade was to be replicated for a few of the outer dorms, the majority of the residential dorms were slated to be redeveloped based on new designs by commissioned architects. However, nothing substantial has happened in this direction so far.

The Louis Kahn buildings at IIM-A are not just aesthetically pleasing structures; they carry immense historical and architectural value. The fusion of modernist principles with Indian architectural elements, the clever use of natural light, and the meticulous attention to detail make these buildings a treasure trove of architectural history. They have inspired countless architects and designers around the world and are considered iconic representations of Kahn’s oeuvre.

According to Riyaz Tayyibji, the principal architect and partner at Anthill Design in Ahmedabad, who has in the past been a vocal advocate against the demolition of Kahn’s buildings, there is support for the poor state of the structures in both the IIT Roorkee report and Alessandra Rampazzo’s 2020 book titled “Steel like Straw: Louis I. Kahn and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad”.

“However, despite not being publicly disclosed by the institute, the data suggests that the buildings are in an unsafe condition. While the option of replicating the buildings exists, concerns arise regarding the proposed modifications, such as the incorporation of air conditioning and attached toilets, which deviate from Kahn’s original vision. The institute’s intention to upgrade and expand the buildings gives rise to worries about compromising their authenticity and the frugal student life they once embodied. Moreover, the fact that the institute has previously solicited tenders for redevelopment indicates a predetermined solution, rather than an exploration of creative approaches in preserving the structures,” according to Tayyibji.

Proponents of the demolition argue that sentimental attachments to the past should not hinder IIM-A’s growth and progress. They advocate for adapting to the evolving educational landscape by incorporating modern amenities and technologies to provide the best possible learning experience. The need for increased space and improved functionality outweighs the historical value of the existing structures, according to their perspective.

“IIM-A’s development should not be restrained by an undue attachment to the past. We must embrace change and prioritise the institute’s future needs. Modernization and advanced infrastructure are essential for staying at the forefront of education,” a faculty member who attended the June 4 meeting, said.

Another alumnus, from 1997 batch, who also attended the same meeting said one of the points raised by the alumni was that the elements of the newly built IIM-A campus should not creep into the heritage campus during the replication of Kahn’s designs. They all spoke on conditions of anonymity as it was an internal meeting.

“IIM-A wants to bring everyone on board and will consult various stakeholders before making any decision regarding Louis Kahn buildings. At IIM-A, safety comes first, followed by heritage,” an official close to the development at IIM-A stated.

As the discussions continue, the fate of the Louis Kahn buildings hangs in the balance. The controversy surrounding their potential demolition raises important questions about the preservation of architectural heritage in the face of modernization and the evolving needs of educational institutions like IIM-A.

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